Last season a final match victory over Gloucester had ensured theysurvived in the Premiership on points difference but this time the emotionswere quite different as they ran in four second-half tries to their rivals oneto wrap up a highly successful league campaign under Australian coach JohnConnolly. Even defeat would not have affected their topping the table asEuropean Cup finalists Wasps were at the receiving end of a record home defeat,48-17, by a revitalised Leicester, who ran in six tries.
Wasps, the reigning champions, will face a tough clash withNorthampton to see if they will play Bath in the showpiece final but with theEuropean Cup final also at Twickenham on May 23rd Lawrence Dallaglio's team face ademanding month.
Bath's renaissance was a suitable farewell season for England'sSouth African-born centre Mike Catt, who is leaving after over a decade atthe club for London Irish. "It is disappointing to have to leave," said Catt, whoseperformances at the World Cup especially in the quarter-final against Wales wereinstrumental in England's victory.
"The last few weeks have been tough, but we showed we are thechampions. I thought (Australian fly-half) Chris Malone was fantastic,and Robbie Fleck is coming into his own.
"It is 10-12 years of fantastic fun but it is a pity to moveon. Hopefully I will play in the final but it is an opportunityfor the younger boys to get some silverware."
Bath's Australian coach John 'Knuckles' Connolly paid handsometroubte to his players for turning it around, though his investment in 14 newplayers in the close season was credited by Catt as the main difference. "It is a great achievement and a tribute to theplayers," said Connolly, who was part of the Wallaby backroom in their 1991 World Cup triumph.
"The last couple of weeks we have been playing well inpatches and then dropping away, but today we played well for the 80 minutes,"added Connolly, who guided Stade Francais to the 2001 European Cup final where theylost to Leicester. Connolly, though, said that he would keep the players sharp in thethree week gap between Saturday's match and the final unlike Gloucesterlast year who finished top but were beaten by Wasps in the one-off match.
"They'll have three days off and then we'll organise a fourday training camp and a friendly, so as to keep up to match sharpness," saidConnolly.
A shellshocked Gloucester handler Nigel Melville had few excuses. "That was a humiliation, for anyone to do with Gloucesterrugby club," said the former England scrum-half.
Gloucester will still have a chance to earn the final European Cupspot as they are in the wild card play-offs along with Leicester Harlequins,whose comeback against Northampton saw them end up one point short beaten18-17, and Sale, who beat Leeds 31-20.
AFP - 2004.